NBA preview: Central

NBA preview: Central
By Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
October 11, 2005

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
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The Central is the NBA's best, most competitive division from top to bottom. There are three potential championship contenders – that's right, Cleveland is ready to make the jump – and two more possible playoff teams. It's not inconceivable that all five teams will make it to the postseason, too.

Still, each team has plenty of questions to be answered. Is Indiana mature enough to truly be a championship team? Can Detroit adjust to a new coach? Does LeBron have enough help around him? Can Chicago deal with the loss of Eddy Curry? And how good is Andrew Bogut?

The answers to those questions and others will go a long way towards determining which team will rule the league's strongest division. Here's how I see the Central shaping up.

1. Indiana Pacers
Best-case scenario: Jermaine O'Neal takes control of the team and becomes the undisputed leader. Ron Artest is so happy to be playing basketball again that he is a model citizen and wins the Defensive Player of the Year. Sarunas Jasikevicius is the second coming of Scott Skiles, giving Indiana toughness, shooting and solid point guard play. The Pacers wear teams down with depth and defense and storm to the Central Division title.

Worst-case scenario: O'Neal, Artest and Stephen Jackson fight over shots and Jasikavicius and Jamal Tinsley can't coexist at the point. The Pacers fall down the playoff ladder into the seventh or eighth spot.

Outlook: This team is so good defensively and so well-coached that it's tough to not see them as one of the best clubs in the NBA. Barring injury – or a brawl that leads to season-ending suspensions for the entire roster – the Pacers will win the division.

2. Detroit Pistons
Best-case scenario: The coaching transition goes smoothly and the Pistons' players not only pick up Flip Saunders' offense quickly, but they maintain their defensive identity and remain the kings of the Central.

Worst-case scenario: Detroit falls in love with Saunders' creative offense but forgets that their bread is buttered at the other end of the floor. They lose their edge and they can't quite score enough to be a great team. The Pistons drop out of the running to win the division.

Outlook: The Pistons are as tough as any team in the NBA. Saunders is a very good coach, and he knows what makes this team who they are. Detroit may take a while to adjust to its new leader, but by the end of the season, they'll be right up there fighting for the division title.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers
Best-case scenario: LeBron James wins the MVP, the Cavaliers play great defense under Mike Brown and they shoot the ball well enough from the perimeter to make people pay for trying to send help towards James. Cleveland blasts through the wall and surpasses Indiana and Detroit to win the Central.

Worst-case scenario: LeBron's teammates don't shoot well, Zydrunas Ilgauskas hurts his foot again and the Cavaliers neglect to play the defense that Mike Brown is trying to teach them. They slip down to the bottom of the East's playoff picture.

Outlook: James is on the verge of winning the MVP. He has much more help around him this year with Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones. The Cavaliers will make a major jump and become one of the East's elite teams.

4. Chicago Bulls
Best-case scenario: The Bulls continue to scrap and claw, Tyson Chandler develops an offensive game on the block and Chicago follows up its feel-good season from a year ago with another solid year to return to the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: The team forgets that it won last season with effort. They don't defend quite as hard, and Eddy Curry's departure leaves them without any offense down low. The Bulls lose their edge and fall out of the playoff picture altogether.

Outlook: Scott Skiles won't allow his team's effort to drop. The Bulls will compete as hard as they did last season, but the lack of inside scoring will hurt them. They won't compete for the division title, but they should sneak into the playoffs.

5. Milwaukee Bucks
Best-case scenario: T.J. Ford returns at full speed, Andrew Bogut becomes the best passing center in the league and Michael Redd and Bobby Simmons form one of the top wing duos in the league. The Bucks surprise everyone and Terry Stotts leads them to the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Ford isn't healthy, Bogut isn't ready and Redd and Simmons are forced into difficult shots night after night. Milwaukee struggles to find an identity and they falter, missing the playoffs for the second straight season.

Outlook: The Bucks will be better, because their personnel has been upgraded considerably. Bogut's progression will take some time, as will Ford's recovery from his spinal injury. Redd and Simmons will be a lethal wing combination, and Milwaukee will be a surprise team, remaining in the playoff hunt until late in the season.

Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Tuesday, Oct 11, 2005 9:14 pm, EDT

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